Of all the repurposed restaurant environments, I can't think of one that says delicious less than a subterranean bank vault. In theory, this venture from ex-Hot Chocolate chef Mark Steuer and the real estate developers he partnered with could be haunted by the ghosts of all those Johnny Punchclocks who stashed their war bonds, bungalow deeds, and heirloom baubles in the burnished safety deposit boxes that shine on the walls in the reflected firelight. But in practice it's one of the coolest restaurant interiors in recent memory—the sort of atmosphere that could easily overshadow the food of even a gifted chef such as Steuer.
The designers of the space, housed belowdecks on the busy corner of Division and Ashland, have taken advantage of the stolid charms of the former MB Financial Bank and transformed it into something like a glowing pharaoh's crypt, with a few incongruous distractions such as flat-screen TVs and framed color photographs depicting rednecks mowing lawns or firing shotguns at off-camera quarry. Ostensibly those are meant to evoke the "midwestern" sensibility of the menu, though they actually make me imagine I'm viewing a survivalist's family photo album in a fallout shelter.
And I'm not sure what's particularly midwestern about the harissa vinaigrette that dresses the fava bean crostini on overwhelmed slices of Red Hen bread. Or for that matter, pedestrian bar food such as chicken wings, hand-cut fries, and admittedly nice, creamy deviled eggs gussied up with bacon powder—that is, unless you imagine upstate New York and the south are in the midwest.
Steuer and his crew have no problems coaxing and presenting powerfully memorable flavors out of the more interesting larger plates. One evening a beer-braised rabbit special with giardiniera was such a ballsy balancing act of gaminess and acidity, I was crestfallen that it had already been retired by the time I returned. And given its seasonal ingredients, I fear the flaky pan-roasted halibut with bacon, favas, young garlic, and olive tapenade won't be around very long, but at least I understand why.
Most of my problems are textural: a venison sausage is surprisingly juicy and flavorful paired with tart kohlrabi kraut, spring garlic, and lentils, yet flaccidly understuffed in a wet bag of casing. A duck liver mousse came with a tiny square of brioche too airy and dainty to match its bold richness, and a few mushy gnocchi got lost amid a bounteous collection of sweet spring vegetables and mushrooms. Bigger, pricier plates are gambles too—duck confit with a poached egg and salsa verde turned into a slippery, sloppy gruel when disturbed, and the crispy skin on a walleye pike slid off the fillet, having been oversloshed in a deep, lemon-spiked fumet bath.
Barring those, there are plenty of predictable inclusions—a burger, of course, a grilled Gruyere and cheddar sandwich, hanger steak with tots, roasted chicken breast, and a toned down but creamy and perfectly cooked version of the stuff Steuer was recently plying on the Southern Mac Truck. And there are a few desserts outsourced to reliable producers such as Hoosier Mama Pie and Black Dog Gelato.
But the beverage program is at once too limited and too diverse. A brief cocktail list offers nothing to drinkers that don't bring a toddler's sweet tooth to the bar, and a limited collection of low-brow brews like Schlitz and Heineken keep company with more august ones such as Brugse Zot ale and Goose Island Matilda.
Maybe that's all an attempt to appeal to too broad a swath of so-called midwesterners. We're a diverse group, after all, and it broadcasts one of the most aggravating and libelous cliches about us—that excepting the occasional shotgun blast, we're sort of safe and boring.
E-mail Mike Sula at firstname.lastname@example.org.